CultureTalk: Transforming Access in the Entertainment Industry
July 10, 2024

CultureTalk: Transforming Access in the Entertainment Industry

Join us in this episode of CultureTalk as we speak with Martin Austin, Founder and Managing Director of Nimbus Disability, about how the pioneering Access Card is transforming accessibility in arts, culture, and entertainment venues. Discover Martin's personal experiences, the impact of accessibility, and Nimbus' future ambitions.
Matt Yau

The Access Card that was pioneered by Nimbus Disability has transformed the way that people can discreetly convey their access needs to art, culture and entertainment venues. Moreover, the Access Card makes it easy for venues and festivals to understand what reasonable adjustments they need to make rather than trying to understand what somebody’s disability is and how that might affect their experience because it’s not always that obvious.

It’s no surprise that the team behind the Access Card have won a number of awards for their work. In 2022, they were awarded the Queen’s Award for Enterprise in the field of Innovation.

Catering to various access needs isn’t also so easy for venues though, especially those in Victorian and similarly old buildings. This is why Nimbus’ services are so essential in the sector. 

In this episode of CultureTalk, I spoke to Martin Austin, Founder and Managing Director of Nimbus Disability. Join us in this discussion about Martin’s personal experiences of accessing arts and culture, the impact of accessibility in arts and culture, and how Nimbus is transforming venues for disabled individuals.


Matt: Hi everyone. Welcome to another episode of Culture Talk, where we share insights and learnings from leaders in arts and culture. Today we've got a really special guest, many of you may know him. It's Martin Austin, Managing Director and Founder of Nimbus Disability, a consultancy that provides disability-related advice and support to professional organisations. Nimbus offers a range of services. I think many of you will know the innovative Access Card, which discreetly conveys the access needs of a disabled person visiting an entertainment venue. Martin, how are you today?

Martin: I'm good, thank you. Cheers for having us on. 

Matt: Thanks for your time today. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your earliest memories of arts and culture? 

Martin: So, I grew up in the Midlands, just outside of Nottingham. Not disabled, but had a really rich childhood. In terms of arts and culture, music was a big part of growing up. There was always music on in the house. I'm obsessed with listening to music pretty much. We were regular theatre-goers. One of the things that my parents were really good with was exposing us to live music really early on. I remember my first big show, not what I talk about a great deal because as you can probably tell, I'm a bit more of a metalhead these days, but my first tour when I was about 11 was Madonna's Blond Ambition at Wembley. It was electrifying and addictive. The next big show I saw was Prince live. That definitely gives you a bug for live music.

In the mid-90s, I got cancer, a really aggressive tumour in my hip, and ended up losing my leg, becoming disabled. Throughout all of my treatments, I was in the hospital a lot. All I did was listen to music the entire time. By the time I was well enough, I wanted to get back to going to gigs again. The experiences going to gigs as a disabled person are very different from being a non-disabled person. 

Matt: We'll certainly come on to that in a minute. It's a story that many people resonate with in terms of music bringing people together and enlivening people. As someone who enjoyed arts and culture and especially music before becoming an amputee, how were your experiences of accessing gigs and performing arts in the months and years after the treatment?

Martin: They weren't too bad in the early days. I got quite fit again quite quickly, wore a prosthetic leg, and didn't really think of myself at that time as being a disabled person. So, I'd go to gigs pretty much as I always had done. I'd book standing tickets, but I'd find myself rather than being in the mosh pit, finding a quiet space near the mixing desks to stand and watch, which was fine for arena shows. But as I got a bit older and more independent, around 18 or 19, festivals were calling. Doing festivals was a completely different kettle of fish. The distances involved in walking around the festival, the amount of standing, and the lack of concessions for things like accessible entrance lanes and shorter routes around the venue made it challenging. I had one pretty bad experience at a big festival, having to walk back through a campsite to get to the car in the middle of the night, tripping over guide ropes with this big clunky prosthetic leg. It put me off festivals for a long time, I've got to admit.

Matt: Yeah, it sounds like a challenging experience for sure. Obviously, it seems they motivated you to start Nimbus Disability in 2006. 

Martin: To some extent. We started Nimbus because I was working for a charity at the time, and we were looking at ways to generate income for the charity as a disability charity. One of the things we started doing was training, development, and auditing. It was kind of by accident that we ended up working in live music because the Download Festival was just down the road from where we are. We ended up doing some work with the Download Festival and Live Nation because a couple of years before, I'd plucked up the courage to go to another festival because my dream trio of a lineup was touring. The access facilities in place compared to 15 years earlier were completely different, with a lot more consideration given. So, the work that Nimbus did fit neatly with Live Nation's ambitions of being more accessible. We really got to embrace that, and festivals became a busman's holiday.

Matt: How has that journey been for Nimbus, and how has access for disabled people changed over the years? 

Martin: There have been a lot of changes. The biggest challenge the industry has at the moment with accessibility is just the sheer volumes of people that want to be going to festivals. For me, not knowing that access existed because it didn't exist to now, it being not just existing but really common knowledge, and the demand on facilities is increasing and increasing. It's great that so many people can actually attend live music, theatres, theme parks, and the like now. But the improvements, it's the old Wayne's World "build it, and they will come," and they do. Once the infrastructure is there, people come, and they don't look back.

Matt: Yeah, I mean, you kind of touched on the amount of people who have access needs. In the UK alone, I think the market for disabled ticket-holders is worth 250 billion. Nimbus has been making the case that providing access for disabled people is a valuable commercial strategy in the sector. But for me, and I'm sure many others too, accessing arts is a philosophical imperative. What do you think people miss out on when they don't have access to arts, culture, or music? 

Martin: I think you're absolutely right. It's what people get out of arts, culture, and music. For disabled people in particular, it's that sense of a shared experience. It's one thing listening to an album in your room and having that music get you through hard times or bring great memories back to life. Music is so emotive. But to be at an event where you share that experience with other people is everything. People that don't go to shows will never understand the experience of listening to your favourite song with 30, 40, or 80,000 other people having the exact same experience at the same time. It's bonding. You create friendships through that. You sustain friendships through that. When we started going to Download as it became more accessible, it was me and one friend, then us and two more friends, until we got to the point where our entire wheelchair basketball team would go to Download. So, it's not just that one experience, it's the experience that lives with you for a long time as well. Not having the accessibility for disabled people to do that is a massive missed opportunity because it enriches your life.

Matt: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, just listening to that and thinking back to festivals that I've been to, it is spine-tingling to think about how people are brought together. It is an amazing experience. What are your ambitions for Nimbus Disability in the future? 

Martin: That's a tricky question because we're still on a trajectory of growth at the moment. The last couple of years have been really good for Nimbus in terms of new venues and the cardholder base increasing so much. The ultimate ambition is to continue adding value back to disabled people. Going back to the shared experience of doing a festival, some people might not find out about festivals until they've been brave enough to go to a theatre for the first time and then an arena show. Enabling disabled people with that kind of experience is important. From a business strategy perspective, the biggest challenge is how we scale for international development. We have some international operations, and we've got a lot of non-UK access cardholders. But the demand for our solution is already piquing interest in countries like the States and Australia. We have venues all around. How we can get to a model that is truly international and reinvest some of that income into local causes is a key focus. As a social enterprise, any profit we generate is donated to charity. To take that model and roll it out to other countries, especially those that aren't as well developed in grassroots services for disabled people, is something close to all of our hearts and passions and the reason me and the team do what we do.

Matt: We can't wait to see that unfold. It will be great to see Nimbus grow globally. We love seeing the work that Nimbus does and the positive impact it has on people in the UK. How should venues and culture organisations get in touch with you if they need help providing access to disabled people? 

Martin: All the usual channels. LinkedIn is a great way to reach out to us individually and personally. We have a hello[at]Nimbus Disability email that venues can reach out on. We try our best to do the rounds at trade shows. But one of the main things we decided on a while ago is that we don't do a lot of direct marketing. We tend to let people find out about us when the timing is right for them, rather than push it down their throats. Anybody with questions can reach out to our small onboarding team, who walk businesses through the opportunities for processing their own in-house access registrations, accepting the Access Card, integrating the API into their online sales solutions so disabled people can book tickets online, which seems like an obvious thing to say but is still a challenge for many disabled people and venues. That's the bigger challenge we've adopted in the arts and culture sector.

Matt: Cool. Well, there's lots we can't cover in the time that we have. Maybe we can catch up again in the future for a more in-depth chat about accessibility at festivals or maybe just metal. Take care. It's been really great chatting to you and hearing about the work that you do, and hopefully I'll catch you again soon. 

Martin: Thanks for having me on. Really appreciate it. 

Matt: Brilliant. Thank you. Cheers. 

Martin: Cheers.

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